Fly on the Wall—Making A Mess

Expressing Our New Year's Resolutions in a New Way

This year, why not try finger painting your New Year’s resolutions?  While written lists of goals can obscure raw intentions, the tactile nature of hand paint can get us in touch with our primal natures.  Multiple senses are stimulated when we paint by touch.  As the paint oozes and traces from fingers to paper, and spreads from our personal palm print to our chosen canvas, the gooey mess may serve to express some untold personal truths.  And if you don’t wear a smock you might even get a new t shirt design out of the deal.

Words claim a solidity that belies their limits; whereas images depict deeper points about where we’re at in our being.  The towering philosophic figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed that “we should talk less and draw more.  I personally would like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches” (Goethe in 247).  Enter a little free play with finger paint and you might exit the January a happier student.

The Dodo and the Devil in the Details

Too often in AU student life our results come in the form of written text.  Pragmatic though language be, when we wonder why New Years resolutions feel so contrived and hollow, it may be that they don’t get at what really moves our heart.  Even when resolutions succeed, as I find they can when they’re dolloped out with an avid dose of realism, the rushing joy of success says more about our emotions than the fact that we succeeded at a concrete goal.  Painting our intentions gives us new insights about what we mean when we make a literal claim; “in fact,” writes Stephen Jay Gould, “iconography offers precious insight into modes of thinking that words often mask or ignore-precisely because we tailor our words so carefully but reveal our secrets unconsciously in those ‘mere’ illustrations” (Gould, 428).  What we create, be it an image or just some squiggles, says much about our inner state.

Even rabidly literalist depictions express sentiments, be they wistful and morose, or gleeful and ebullient.  Images may not speak a perfect symphony, but they do say more than they at first appear to.  Take the humble dodo, buried forever by the tragedy of extinction.  “Have you ever seen a dodo pictured as anything other than alone and forlorn, although they once abounded on Mauritius?  The classic dodo reconstruction shows a single bird dominating the foreground of a desolate terrain.  For the dodo is both a large flightless pigeon and our conventional metaphor for extinction” (Gould, 428).  As we finger paint we just might see something in our feelings that we hadn’t clarified in words.  Resolutions that say what they mean elide the meanings they say by the mere act of their creation; we at once mean more and less than what we say because every sentence shears away all but the few syllables it reveals out of the vast inland sea of our pre-symbolic mind.  Remember, most of our thoughts exist prior to the process of putting them into words.  Finger paint allows us to express the symbols we didn’t know we had.

Take weight loss for instance, the mere fact that it’s a topic of concern to a person suggests insecurity about their health, sensuality, or longevity.  The latter is a universal concern; mortality is the great unknown that begins every New Year.  Is this the end?  It could be.  Time’s halt lurks ever over the horizon, like a Komodo dragon in some shadowy nightmare.  Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Remember, resolutions are promises we make about our future self and, to paraphrase the famous aphorism, we need not ruminate about the past because we don’t live their anymore.   Future goals say more about our past states of mind than we may realize.  Resolutions thereby demand that our future self hold to promises made by another self, our past self.  But creations we paint (or draw, or compose with an instrument or as a freeform poem) are timeless in that they involve limited preparation and hold no meaning mapped onto a larger narrative.  We only have the present to live and perhaps the ultimate New Year’s resolution is to treat the present as a playful gift, something finger painting is great at helping us to realize.  The future is unknown and the best laid goals remain uncertain.

In Every Saying Lurks the Times We Inherit

Whether we say our resolutions in words, write them as a list, or dabble them in playdough, the meaning of our being is inexorably bound up with our modern cultural zeitgeist.  Consider how familiar this 1762 statement by Age of Enlightenment giant Jean-Jacques Rousseau reads:  “Our popular languages have become perfectly useless to us as eloquence has.  Societies have assumed their final form: nothing is in them any longer changed except by arms and cash, and as there is no longer anything to say to the people but give money, it is said to them with placards at street corners or by soldiers in their homes; it is not necessary to assembly anyone for this: on the contrary, the subjects have to be kept scattered; this is the first maxim of modern politics.” (Rousseau in Derrida 150).

Resolutions are essentially akin to monetary exchanges in that we believe that a series of actions will yield a predictable reward.  Even when we mean what we say and have the best of intentions for our future selves, the meanings we ascribe to our life are part of a larger social reality, one that is isolated, individualistic, and tending to blame victims for their challenges.  In other words, the idea that we as individuals should make resolutions at all puts the burden of change on our own actions rather than on asking us to think about the world and realize just how much of our emotional state is dependent upon cultural expectations that we’ve learned to internalize.  A few messy finger-paintings might set us straight!

If there’s one thing at AU that doesn’t work as a resolution or at any time in our study schedule, to this Fly on the Wall, it’s affixing guilt and undue pressure onto the accomplishment of one’s coursework.  And that’s why, this year, I’ve fingerpainted my New Year’s goals like an innocent chimp.  Because if we get in touch with our inner child and our natural longing for learning and betterment and growth, we will have accomplished the greatest development of all.  We’ll have resolved ourselves into the best version of ourselves there’s yet been.  May 2020 bring success and fulfillment to us all!

Goethe, J.  W.V.  In Gould, S.J.  (1993).  Eight Little Piggies.  London: W.W.  Norton & Co.
Rousseau, J.J.  (1762).  The Social Contract.  In Derrida, J (1967/2016).  Of Grammatology.  Trans.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
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